This year is the 1600th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet by Saint Mesrop Mashtots. As part of this year’s Armenian Studies Lecture Series, Dr. Peter Cowe was invited to speak on the origins of the Armenian alphabet and the cultural impact it has had for the past 1600 years for Armenians and the Diaspora.
On October 21, Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian began the evening by speaking on “The Political Situation in Armenia on the Eve of the Invention of the Armenian Alphabet.” Der Mugrdechian then introduced Dr. Cowe.
Dr. Cowe is Professor of Armenian Language and Culture at UCLA. He received his Ph.D. in Armenology from Hebrew University and has been a professor at Columbia University as well as at UCLA. Dr. Cowe is the author of several books including: Commentary on the Divine Liturgy by Xosrov Anjewatsi, The Armenian Version of Daniel, and Modern Armenian Drama: An Anthology.
On the eve of the 5th century, Armenia was just starting to develop an identity. However, it was difficult, as geographically and politically she was divided into two sections: the Persians largely dominated the east and governors appointed by the Byzantine empire ruled the western regions of historic Armenia. The two empires had plans of assimilating the Armenians into their religion and culture. Dr. Cowe remarked, “A country that is limited to only oral communication is in imminent danger of assimilation.”
Due to the resilience of the Armenians on the battlefield, as well as in the religious realm, they were able to maintain their beliefs and culture. The maintenance of identity was greatly improved, thanks largely to the invention of the alphabet by Mesrop Mashtots in 405 AD.
Armenia experienced a Golden Age of literature following the invention of the alphabet. Armenians were now able to record their poems, folk tales, and history for future generations to read. Gradually as the population learned to read and write in their native tongue, education flourished. Thus, the Armenian and Christian doctrine was translated and taught to many. The church, which naturally drew people to it, was a great source of education for the public. Hence, through literature and the church, Armenian culture was defined and is maintained to this very day.
More recently, many Armenians have immigrated all over the world and once again there is a threat to the “Armenian Identity,” as they become susceptible to assimilation into foreign cultures. However, it is the native language, which unites Armenians around the globe. And it’s no wonder there is such an attempt by Armenian parents as well as educators, to maintain the use of the language no matter where they live.
Mesrop Mashtots is thus one of the most venerated Armenian figures of all time. Under the guidance of Catholicos Sahak Partev and King Vramshapuh, Mashtots was able to create the 36-letter alphabet (two were added later) that defined an entire nation. Often Mesrop Mashtots is depicted holding a stone embossing of the alphabet. This scene is very similar to that of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, which God himself gave.
Mesrop Mashtots was born in 362 AD and died in 440 AD. He was truly a Renaissance man, as he was in the military, a clergyman, linguist, and scholar. He translated many important works and established schools and monasteries. His life was documented by several biographers, namely Koriun and Agatangelos.
A large crowd attended the lecture and Dr. Cowe gave an entertaining talk. He made many realize the importance of the Armenian language to its people. It is apparent now, why Armenian parents make such a big deal of teaching their children to speak Armenian in the home. And on this night I too realized the importance of the Armenian language.